The folks at Disney seem pretty determined to undermine their classic princess narrative. Last year’s “Frozen” upped the ante with two princesses, and even made one of them the temporary antagonist in the eyes of those in her kingdom. The online debate about the interpretation of the mega-hit musical was almost more entertaining than the movie itself.
And now we have “Maleficent,” a revisionist take on Disney’s own “Sleeping Beauty” that suggests the true nature of one of the Magic Kingdom’s most famous villains might be a little more ambiguous than we imagined.
With Angelina Jolie in the title role and a master haul of special effects backing an interesting storyline, “Maleficent” feels primed for success. Yet once the credits finally roll, the film feels more like a loaded gun that hasn’t quite found its target. There’s nothing offensive in “Maleficent” (unless you’re a “Sleeping Beauty” purist), yet Disney has given us a PG-rated film that is way too dark and frightening for little kids, and probably a bit too intellectual for its own good.
“Maleficent” opens during the childhood of the title character, a winged fairy living on the enchanted side of a divided world. For the most part, the magic creatures keep to themselves, and the humans in the “normal” world do the same. But young Maleficent befriends a human boy with royal aspirations named Stefan, and a vivid first act origin story reveals that a broken heart is what transformed her into the villain we remember from “Sleeping Beauty.”
The backstory alone is enough to make Jolie’s sharp-cheekboned protagonist more sympathetic, especially when Stefan eventually becomes king (played as an adult by Sharlto Copley) and has a daughter named Aurora (Elle Fanning). But as “Maleficent” shifts into what audiences will recognize as the meat of the “Sleeping Beauty” story, there are plenty more changes to come. The story still hinges on princes and kisses and thorny thickets, just not the same way you remember.
Backed by fascinating visuals, those changes might offer an interesting twist or two for fans of the earlier story. But the complexity and non-traditional feel to the film, in addition to the aforementioned dark tone and content, might be barriers for younger viewers.
In short, “Maleficent” is interesting as a revisionist exercise, but it’s not the best fairy tale.
Not that Jolie is to blame. She’s perfect for her role and strikes a nice balance as a figure that is every bit as tragic as she is evil. Her striking makeup was provided by industry legend Rick Baker, and in combination with the rest of the film’s visuals, “Maleficent” makes for an impressive production. (Imax is an appealing option here, though the 3-D feels a little superfluous.) Fanning is sweet as the young Aurora, but while her father provides a unique presence, Copley is much too unsympathetic as Stefan to give his character the tragic weight the new story requires.
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Still, the visuals and Jolie’s acting might be enough for some, and for those who are OK with a substantial twist or two on a classic story, “Maleficent” should still be a pleasure to watch. It's a "good" movie, but it’s hard to walk away without feeling like something was off — the story, the king, take your pick. Maybe revision for the sake of revision just leaves you feeling empty, and in this case, it could cost “Maleficent” its audience.
“Maleficent” is rated PG, but contains enough frightening moments and violent content that parents should think twice about bringing younger children to theaters.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.